Robert Ryan — I’m Gambling With My Career (1947) 🇺🇸
In “Crossfire,” Bob Ryan plays a vicious anti-Semite. It takes courage to play villains; Bob has it!
by Robert Ryan
I have just heard myself called a brave man. This doesn’t happen to an actor every day in the week and I’m feeling a little uncomfortable.
The thing happened after a projection room showing of the first rough cut of “Crossfire”. There was only a handful of us there, since it was strictly a “work run” to be followed by a conference on the cutting. I saw Adrian Scott, who produced the picture, Eddie Dmytryk, the director, and the cutter, the musical director, a few executives.
There had been no point in inviting the actors. Their work was done. I had wangled admittance on grounds of acute curiosity. I play my first “heavy” in Crossfire, and I was itching to find out how the job stacked up.
Nobody said anything for a minute after the lights came up. I found myself hoping that I didn’t look too smugly self-satisfied. I felt good. The character I do, Monty, a discharged army sergeant who is a violent and vicious anti-Semite, had been very loathsome, just as I had hoped.
I had felt the shock in the darkened room when Monty had spit out “Jew boy,” an ugly phrase never heard on the screen before. I knew the half dozen people seeing the picture that day felt real revulsion when the ex-sergeant bragged “Sure I killed the Jew boy,” and then shrugged, as though to add, “so what?” So what does it matter, one more or less of those? Monty was loathesome all right.
As I say, I felt good. I believed I had proved this time I was an actor.
I suppose proof was implied in the comments which finally broke the silence. But they rocked me back on my heels.
“It’s a brave thing you’ve done, Ryan,” said one of the group, an executive I had never seen before. And then he added, “You’re gambling with your career, of course, but..
But, he meant, he hoped for the best. He was with me. All of the people in that room were with me.
“Really courageous,” someone else murmured.
I didn’t know what to say to that. So I got out of there.
I had expected a pat on the back. I thought the performance was good. But this talk about bravery and courage. If you’re brave, I figured, somebody is mad at you. I wasn’t sore at anybody. Who was sore at me? I walked across the lot to the parking lot in a daze, trying to figure this thing out.
I certainly hadn’t pictured myself as “brave” or “courageous” when I knocked down every door in the studio trying to get that part. I certainly didn’t think that I was “gambling with my career.” I thought the script John Paxton had got out of Richard Brooks’ novel, “The Brick Foxhole” was a tight, wonderful script, and that the role of the ex-sergeant was a fat, juicy, wonderful part. I thought such a part would make an actor — not break him. That’s why I heckled everybody from Studio Head Dorey Schary, down, to forget for once that I was a leading man, begged them to let me play it.
I knew there was a risk involved. There is always danger for a performer in switching from the kind of role in which the fans have accepted him — in my case it was a switch from typically American, good-guy roles to something quite the opposite. But the worst they could call a man for that is crazy; there’s nothing brave about it.
I’ve been called crazy before. When I abandoned my nice, safe job buying and distributing supplies for the Chicago city schools to come to Hollywood to try to be an actor plenty of people called me crazy. The first agent I went to see took one look at me, brightened, I thought, and then told me “Turn around, go out and come in again.” When I looked puzzled, he added, “Make an entrance. Get it?” I got it. I went out, and came in again. “Go back to Chicago,” he said. So did everybody else I met for a painfully long period. As it turned out, they were wrong. I’m not frightened of the word “crazy” any more.
But “brave”... ? I would have thought twice before I went out looking for that one. So many brave men I have known are dead men now. No one I know who had a taste of the war is interested in collecting handles like that, too much like medals.
Well, now there it was — the “brave” handle — ringing in my ears. Apparently playing Monty with everything I had, showing him up for the evil, stinking coward he is, was somehow dangerous.
By the time I had edged my car through the Hollywood traffic, and headed over the pass into the valley I was beginning to mutter a few “so what’s?” of my own. So what if it was dangerous? Is an actor supposed to make anti-Semitism pretty?
Don’t get me wrong. I’m no crusader. I wouldn’t know what to do with a soap box if I had one. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t feel strongly about some- things. Anti-Semitism is one of them. I hate the race-baiters the way I hate any group which has some stake in splitting people away from people. Anti-Semites are trouble makers, war-makers, in my book. Monty, in “Crossfire,” is pretty much the essence of everything I hate and despise.
I found myself thinking with a flash of the smug satisfaction I had felt at the fade-out of the picture, which is why I played him as well as I did.
And playing him as well as I did, I reminded myself as the glow disappeared, might turn out to be a one-way ticket to oblivion.
It was fantastic, I thought, fantastic that a guy could be considered to be endangering himself, his livelihood, by acting a part in a motion picture.
I thought of all the things I’d done in my life which were really tough, really dangerous:
A go at the boxing ring, while I was still at Dartmouth; the series of dirty jobs after I arrived in New York hand in hand with the depression; once as a sandhog, pushing heavy rock barges into new-made tunnels hundreds of feet under the Hudson river; soft-coal mining; stoking in the engine room of a freighter. I had been broke enough once even to work as a bill collector at the black bottom of the early thirties. Nobody that I can remember had called me a brave man for any of those things. Nor had anybody said I was courageous for surviving two years war service in the United States Marines.
This obviously was different. There was hidden dynamite in exposing anti-Semitism, even in a motion picture. It was a frightening thought.
By this time, I was turning into the driveway at home. The lights of the house looming up in the dusk seemed unusually bright and reassuring.
“It’s a show box of a house,” I thought for the thousandth time, “but by golly it looks good.”
Jessica and Tim were waiting for me, my wife sprawled in a corner of the sofa trying to concentrate on the evening paper while our son Timothy — who was a year old last April practiced his drunken walk from chair to table, from table to chair. Good food smells were wafting in from the kitchen.
The events of the afternoon, my jitters during the lonely drive home seemed unreal in this welcoming atmosphere.
I told Jessica what had happened. She listened quietly, her big, dark eyes clouding slightly when I came to the quotes about “gambling” with my career. We’ve had about all the gambling we can stomach in the past few years, what with the hungry years of trying to get established, then (so soon after the first big break, my contract with R.K.O. and my first good part playing opposite Ginger Rogers in “Tender Comrade”) the war. But she said what had to be said, as I might have known she would.
“If it is brave — in America — in 1947 — to put the finger on a small time fascist,” she told me, “then all of us had better start getting brave. And fast.”
As you can see, I have quite a remarkable wife. Jessica is a girl you can count on, more than ever when things get tough. Her resourcefulness and good humor had seen us through more than one tight squeeze, and I knew from the look on her face that there would be more of both on tap if they were needed.
Here was a girl who — two weeks after we were married, and my oil well (I really had one!) ran dry — pigeon-holed her own acting aspirations because she thought my chances were better, and went to work in the Fanchon-Marco chorus. It was a rugged job, and she hated it; but it made it possible for me to work and study and pound on doors and try a little longer to make somebody believe that I really could act.
When I finally went to New York for a part in a play with Tallulah Bankhead, the Big Chance — but Little Dough — Jessica came through again, getting up rent money by modeling. And when I went into the Marines, taking a salary cut to $53 a month, my smart wife — who had never read a mystery story, let alone written one — turned lady novelist, and turned out two crime stories which were snapped up by Crime Club, the biggest mystery publisher in the country. (If you like mysteries, you ought to read “Exit Harlequin” and “The Man Who Asked Why.”)
What other people would call a crisis, Jessica considers a challenge.
For instance; Timothy’s arrival on the scene. Many a “career girl” has abandoned her work when a new baby began complicating things. Jessica swears that Tim helps her with her new book. He amuses himself for hours in a playpen a few feet from the desk at which she is writing.
I wasn’t surprised when the news that I might have done too good a job in “Crossfire” left Jessica Undaunted. In the presence of that kind of support, I suddenly felt undaunted myself.
So I might step on a few toes, showing up Monty for a heel, for the Little Man with a Big Inferiority Complex which so many of his kind of swine turn out to be. Did somebody want to make something of it?
A lot more than Bob Ryan and this career, more than our one family and our comfort was at stake, Jessica and I decided that night, if there is any risk in speaking out against the race-baiters.
We all stand to lose if fascism comes. Not just the Jews. The Irish, the Catholics — and I’m both of those — the Negroes, labor, the foreign born, everyone is done for whose color, or religion, occupation or political belief is distasteful to some new paperhanger-turned-Strong Man.
I don’t want to see that happen here. And if it is “brave” to say so, then Jessica is right. We’d all better be getting brave. And fast!
Bob keeps fit by cutting and stacking logs for fireplace. He’s handy around the house; likes to putter.
An enthusiastic gun collector, Bob cleans an antique shootin’ iron in his cozy San Fernando Valley home.
While his wife Jessica writes (she’s written her second novel; many stories) Bob tends baby Tim.
Source: Movieland, August 1947
Vintage Movie Review — Crossfire (RKO)
See this picture then tell your neighbor, your friends, your family — tell everyone to see it. It’s not only the most exciting murder mystery, but it’s a picture every American should see and think about. Crossfire is acted brilliantly by the three Roberts:
- Robert Young, that always honest and dependable performer;
- Robert Mitchum, who packs a wallop second to no actor on the screen today;
- Robert Ryan, who deserves an Academy Award for undertaking a difficult role that could type him; for doing a job of menace-acting that will leave you breathless.
An ex-GI is murdered — a Jew — and it looks like a sensitive, decent guy (George Cooper) did the killing. There’s more to the murder than appears on the surface. The motive is intolerance; the prejudice of racial bigots. The way the murderer is trapped makes exciting drama. Everyone concerned with the picture deserves a big hand. This is a picture everyone will get a thrill out of. This is also a picture Hollywood can be proud of. Movieland is giving this picture an additional [illegible] for outstanding merit.
Collection: Movieland Magazine, 1947